This university year, I have switched the crammed streets of University Avenue for a life on the South East coast of sunny Spain as a British Council Language Assistant. Now I can’t say it was easy switching a cold pint of Tenants on a gloomy Friday afternoon for the seaside tapas in Almeria, but it certainly has been eye-opening to leave behind my wonderfully supportive amigos and the cosy life that I have settled into at Glasgow University. Whilst life is good, and the skies are blue – a rare phenomenon in my beloved Glasgow – some things are not so wonderful and easy to adjust to, especially regarding interactions between men and women here.
I was in two minds about writing this article, one because it only occurred to me today whilst I angrily waited over an hour for a bus that never appeared, and two because sometimes writing something when you are filled with anger is not the best idea, in case you say something in the spur of the moment that you didn’t truly mean. On the other hand, writing about something when filled with emotion can be cathartic, and possibly the truest form of expressing oneself. Hence why I sat down in front of my laptop the minute I finally got back to my flat. Another reason I wasn’t initially sure of writing this is because there is nothing that I hate more than complaining and being negative, especially when I am so lucky to be able to do this year abroad in such a wonderful country. However, this thought quickly subsided because wise up Molly, this is life and it is real. It is not going to be a full year of wearing rose-tinted sunglasses (or just normal ones) so you might as well tell even the worst parts. So here goes.
I wish this was something I never had to write on my year abroad, and I also wish this wasn’t such a relevant and current topic in the world right now. But it is. And I am totally fed up. Since arriving in sunny Almeria, in southern Spain, I have probably felt the most uncomfortable about being a woman out on my own that I have felt in my whole life, even during the day. This uncomfortable feeling is not unknown to me – my almost 21 years on this Earth have been spent having moments of true fear about being the only female within a certain radius, particularly at night. However, almost the second I leave my flat till the moment I get home, I feel constantly watched by the eyes of men here, every day.
I completely understand, especially after travelling parts of Europe this summer, that being a tourist means you probably will get stared at to some extent because ‘oh my God you don’t look like you’re from here’. Also, that some of our EU mates here on the mainland don’t have the same attitude to staring as we in the UK do (eye contact is scary). However, something about where I am in the South of Spain here has made me feel very different. As I had said, today I spent over an hour waiting on my bus today because public transport in Almeria is terrible. That hour has given me a severe headache, with one reason being the amount of dirty looks I had to give to male drivers who seemingly can’t help but stare at me, shout something, beep, slow down, or wave at me as they drive past.
This is something that occurs every single day I stand at the bus stop after school and it infuriates me. The same thing can happen in the street, particularly with old men who sit in large groups outside tapas bars and stare at the women who walk past, silently daring them to scurry away quickly to avoid their intense gaze. Once I get off my bus, I then walk up a large main road towards my flat and I count myself very lucky if I don’t get beeped at or catcalled whilst I am doing so. At 3pm. In broad daylight. The amount of times I have nearly dropped my bag because these cars approach me from behind, wait until the last minute, honk loudly and scare the living bejesus out of me. Before I can even check to see if it is someone I know (which I know it won’t be), a van or car with more than one middle aged man will drive past, laughing. It must be great having the humour of a 12-year-old when you are nearly going bald. In fact, that is just rude towards most 12-year olds because they would know better.
Then I continue on my way, walking past yet again more old men who almost snap their necks trying to take what apparently seems to be a bloody detailed mental image of what I look like. My worst encounter, that also encouraged me to write this post, happened the other day when I went grocery shopping, at 9am, with no makeup and gym clothes on. Apparently, a big mistake because you would think some men here have never seen gym leggings before. A group of three workmen followed me around the supermarket, openly looking me up and down and saying loudly “Madre MIA!” to each other (which is basically like “Oh my god”). I felt completely helpless and totally uncomfortable, particularly as they did it on more than one occasion. I couldn’t even look them in the eye because I felt so ashamed, so my flatmate did some death stares for me instead. I left feeling annoyed at myself that I had not said something to them. But honestly, if I could go back to the scenario I still don’t think I would, because I felt like a literal ant under a magnifying glass.
This whole atmosphere of catcalling and scrutinising women being so normalised in the South has severely confused me. One of the things I realised I love most about Almeria was when I first arrived and headed to the beach. There were millions of older women in bikinis and everyone and their dog had their tops off and nipples out. There is so much confidence, and so little shame. I love it. Yet the minute I walk on to a busy road, fully clothed, I instantly feel like a piece of meat to the majority of men I walk past? No lo entiendo (I don’t understand)!
And now, by the end of this article, I feel slightly guilty that I have spent some time slandering a country that I love and that is filled with so many wonderful people. It baffles me because I genuinely have met some of the kindest people here, so I cannot understand how so many others in the same society lack a basic understanding of equality and respect. I am also not tying this issue to the South of Spain solely. It is a problem all over the world, including the UK. However, from my own experiences, and my friends’ here too, as young women we certainly feel that we have experienced a huge difference in attitude than in our home countries. I would never second guess wearing sports leggings out to the shops in Glasgow, and yet I am wondering will I have the confidence here to do so again this year.